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More than 170,000 children under 5 killed by war each year: new report

Save the Children calls on Australia to halt the export of military assets to countries involved in Yemen war, where up to 85,000 children have died from extreme hunger
15 February 2019

At least 870,000 children under 5 may have died as a result of armed conflict between 2013 and 2017 in the 10 worst-affected countries, according to new analysis by Save the Children, far greater than the almost 175,000 fighters estimated to have been killed in the same period.

Launched today in the lead up to the Munich Security Conference, Save the Children’s Stop the War on Children report includes the most comprehensive collection of data on children living in conflict-affected areas.

The analysis found that since 2010, there has been a 37 percent rise in the number of children living in conflict zones, and a 174 percent increase in the number of verified incidents of grave violations against children, which includes killing and maiming, use of child soldiers and attacks on schools.

The report also found that:

  • 420 million children were living in conflict-affected areas in 2017, up 30 million from the previous year

  • Grave violations have risen from just under 10,000 in 2010 to more than 25,000 in 2017 —the highest number on record

  • More than 550,000 babies died as a result of armed conflict between 2013 and 2017, or over 100,000 per year

While imperfect, the conservative findings come from analysis of data from the 10 worst conflict-affected countries for children in 2017: Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Syria, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria and Somalia.

Many child deaths from conflict were as a result of the indirect effects of war like hunger, damaged infrastructure and hospitals, a lack of access to health care and sanitation, and the denial of aid, according to the report.

Save the Children Australia CEO Paul Ronalds, who recently returned from visiting Australian funded aid programs helping Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, said:

“Whether it’s conflict in Yemen, Syria or the DRC, children are always the most affected. They are the true victims of modern warfare. It is an abomination to think that for every fighter killed in conflict, there are five innocent children killed by the impacts of war. 

“Today there are more children living in areas impacted by conflict than at any stage in the past two decades, while the scale of atrocities they face is increasing rapidly. It is appalling that in this day and age we are going backwards on principles and moral standards that are so simple – children and civilians should never be targeted, no matter what. 

“In Jordan and Lebanon, which together host more than 1.6 million Syrian refugees, every family I met had a harrowing story of escape from Syria and of life during the civil war. Parents talked of the impact on their children, of lost childhoods and the immense risks faced just going to school back in Syria. In our Centenary year, Save the Children is asking: when will we stop the war on children?”

The report examines the war in Yemen, where basic international standards of conduct have not been consistently upheld by any party, and where children have been killed, bombed and attacked in large numbers.

An estimated 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger or disease since the war in Yemen escalated, according to recent analysis by Save the Children, while more than 11 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Mr Ronalds said he was particularly concerned by Australia’s unwillingness to disclose details of its military exports to parties to the Yemen conflict like Saudi Arabia, who have been accused of committing serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law against civilians, including children.

“It is unacceptable to think that Australian businesses could be helping continue the conflict. The supply of weapons, from some of the richest countries in the world, has helped fuel a war that has seen children suffer in horrifying numbers,” Mr Ronalds said.

“It is critical for Australia to take stronger measures to demonstrate its opposition to these alleged violations of international law. We are calling on Australia to join the Belgian, Dutch, and Norwegian governments in halting the issuing of defence export licenses to Saudi Arabia and other parties to the conflict, and to reconsider those that have already been approved.

“Australian aid is doing so much good in Yemen, helping rebuild the healthcare system, providing food and water to families in need and preventing the spread of cholera. It is unconscionable to think that, at the same time, Australian military exports could be inadvertently causing untold harm to children.”

Save the Children’s report also highlights how efforts to keep schools safe, avoid the use of certain weapons, seek accountability for crimes against children or pursue new ways to support their recovery from the horrors of conflict can make a huge difference in their lives. 

The charity included more than 20 recommendations for governments and other influential organisations to ensure children are protected during war and conflict. The commitments range from signing a Safe Schools Declaration and a minimum age of 18 for military recruitment to the avoidance of using explosive weapons in populated areas and tightening conditions for the sale of arms and other military assets.


For media inquiries call Jess Brennan on 0421 334 918 or Licardo Prince on 0401 777 917.

Notes to editors: 

-    In a study published in The Lancet, researchers matched child-survival data to data on the intensity, scale and location of armed conflict in 35 African countries over the two decades to 2015. They found that exposure to conflict increased the average risk of death for children under the age of five by 7,7%. The risk was greatest for children under the age of one living in areas with exposure to more intense conflicts over more protracted periods. The deaths recorded by the Lancet study were due to the indirect impact of conflict, including the destruction of livelihoods and assets, of sanitation and food systems, of medical supply chains, and of access to basic services. We have applied the findings to the ten worst conflict-affected countries in which to be a child listed above and estimate that in the last five years alone 550,000 infants have died due to the reverberating impact of conflict. The total for children under five is 868,000. These estimates are imperfect – they are indicative and may be conservative.

-    Between 2013 and 2017, around 331,000 people died on the battlefields of Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, DRC, Iraq Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. This total is based on data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program Georeferenced Events Dataset (UCD-GED), with the exception of Syria where, owing to underreporting, we used Violations Documentation Center data. Of these 331,000 people, a total of 174,703 were combatants according to the same sources.

-    Children living in conflict-affected areas are defined as children who live within 50km of where one or more conflict events took place in a given year, within the borders of a country.
-    The research, by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), was commissioned by Save the Children

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